As part of its anti-terrorism strategy, the government is currently consulting on Prevent, a document which outlines the intended duty of those working at every level of our education, health and prison services in preventing people from being drawn into terrorism.
We clearly need to address the issue of terrorism, why people espouse terrorist ideologies and why they act on that espousal. But is limiting the freedom of swathes of people the most effective way to promote a cohesive society built on strong communities? Is encouraging public sector workers to evaluate the ideologies of those children, young people and families that they serve the most effective way to nurture trust? Or will it create alienation, sectarianism and a bunker mentality in people who would like to go about their lives openly and peacefully, but who are forced into defensiveness through fear?
Don Horrocks, Head of Public Affairs at the Evangelical Alliance, has written in detail about the threat to freedom in our Universities, particularly with reference to the life of Christian groups on campus. Under the new mandate, all visiting speakers will have to allow sight of their presentation, including broadcast footage, at least 14 days before the visit (report sections 64-66). These rules will also apply to Further Education institutions (sections 88-90, 94-95).
The situation for schools, nurseries and child minders is a little different. The British values/SMSC/broad and balanced curriculum agenda that is already causing alarm forms a substantial part of the requirement (section 111). The document states that ‘schools should be safe spaces in which children and young people can understand and discuss sensitive topics including terrorism and the extremist ideas that are part of the terrorist ideology and learn how to challenge these ideas’ (section 106). But it will also require staff to intervene and report children at risk of being drawn into terrorism (section 113).
This raises some worrying issues. What effect will this have on the trust relationships that we build so carefully with our students and their families, if they feel they are being spied on? What climate will the fear that this engenders create in our classrooms? And how can sensitive topics be discussed in such a climate? The legislation will stifle the very open debate which it suggests that schools should facilitate.
But there are not only fundamental flaws in the content of this document, but in the thinking that informs it. There is an assumption that exposure to a dangerous idea creates a terrorist. But it clearly does not. Even exposure to extremist ideology in total does not, of itself, create terrorists. They are products of the much more complex set of cultural and personal views that inform their values: a government can neither legislate against hearts and minds nor win those hearts and minds for good through limiting the freedom of the rest of its society.
The consultation is open until midday on 30 January. However, the consultation process is itself flawed by bias. Questions assume agreement with the intended course of action and merely ask for more information to extend the reach of the strategy. In order to express any personal concern, you will need to contact your MP or write directly to the Home Office.
As we’ve seen with British values, poorly defined strategy allow for wide interpretation by monitoring authorities. Please respond to this consultation in order to protect not just the freedom of Christians, but also the essential freedoms on which our democracy is built.
For any readers who don’t know John Shortt, let me introduce you to him via his website www.johnshortt.org
Crammed full of all sorts of useful information, John offers links to other useful websites, articles, books and quotations – a veritable cornucopia derived from his extensive experience, ideal for all Christians who teach or work in the world of education. Browsing the site is rather like spending time in your favourite bookshop – you’re not quite sure where to look next, knowing that wherever you do look, you’re sure to be occupied for a good while. For me, the best section is the one which John rather euphemistically describes as his ‘scribblings‘ – links to his articles and writings from a range of publications.
Born and brought up in Ireland, John came to faith in his teens. His speaking and writing are imbued with an obvious love of teaching and learning; just as obvious is his desire to bring a Christian perspective to bear on education. The My Story section of the website details the many areas of work in which John has been involved and demonstrates the extent of his contribution.
John’s life and work have been, and continue to be, an inspiration to many. He is a wise, perceptive and thought-provoking writer and speaker, with a rare ability to communicate profound truth very simply. For me, particularly as an erstwhile Primary English specialist, the greatest joy in hearing him speak derives from his love of story and his firm conviction that it is through storying that we communicate those profound truths.
When talking to teachers about people involved in exploring Christian perspectives in education, the response I most often hear is ‘If only I’d known!’ So if you are a Christian involved in any way in education, whether as a teacher, support worker, governor or parent, drop in on John’s site when you have a moment and have a look around. Better still, settle down with a cup of coffee and browse. Then you will know!
Earlier this week, The Open University published a report titled Religion, Security and Global Uncertainties. It concluded that politicians and the media are taking an overly simplistic view of the causes of terrorism and religious violence and the authors called for a much greater level of religious literacy. Just 24 hours later, staff at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were murdered by men shouting Allahu Akhbar . How can we, as Christians involved in education, respond?
Is it time to follow France’s example and become a secular state? Or is that just to succumb to a bunker mentality? Certainly, many RE teachers felt uniquely placed to lead reflection and discussion on religious violence in a way that teachers in a secular state cannot.
But it goes deeper than that, because it speaks to the very values that unite groups within our society – the freedoms that we have to speak, and write, and think as we wish because we live in a democracy. The debate is not about belief, or religion. It’s about values and the problem created by those who perpetrate violence because they don’t share those values.
Writing in News Letter, Ben Lowry contrasts the difference in response between Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ and Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, both produced in the same year. Both were equally offensive, but the responses from those offended were very different. And why, at least until it was removed following discussion on Question Time, did BBC guidelines state that ‘the prophet Mohammed must not be represented in any shape or form’? Are all other faiths fair game? Or does freedom apply to some beliefs, but not others?
Interestingly, despite a call for European solidarity in which every newspaper, broadcaster and platform should publish Charlie Hebdo covers to show that violence and intimidation won’t work, only one newspaper has so far published. Why? What are we teaching our children by tacitly accepting that any one group can limit freedom in a democracy?
Because if democracy means anything, it means the freedom to satirise, the freedom to say and do things that might be offensive and the acceptance that sometimes we will therefore be offended. But when I am offended (which I sometimes am by trolls who attack me for allegedly believing fairy tales), I don’t deal with it by murdering them, because I am a decent human being who accepts that living in a democracy means that they have the right to say what they wish. I wouldn’t knowingly cause offence – others don’t care. That’s life.
So what should we be discussing with our pupils? Is it about developing religious literacy and a vocabulary that increases understanding? Is it about tolerance and acceptance of everyone, even if they murder? Or is it about returning to the core values of our democratic society (with all its inadequacies and inequities) and insisting that those who choose to live in a democracy must respect its values, even if that means they sometimes feel offended?
There is no easy answer, but we need to find an answer which doesn’t include allowing our free society to become dominated by those who use violence to intimidate. We wouldn’t allow intimidation in our playgrounds, so to send a consistent message, we shouldn’t be allowing it in our society either.